Victorian Poetry 42.4 (2004) 537-551
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Sydney Dobell and "The Church"
Wanted a tutor to the rising age; he must be a creedless Christian—full of faith, but full of charity—wise in head and large in heart—poet and a priest an "eternal child," as well as a thoroughly furnished man.1
When George Gilfillan called for "a tutor to the rising age," he had in mind several "young, ardent and gifted spirits" who wrote poetry to inspire religious feeling in their readers. Philip Bailey seemed a likely candidate, but lacked forcefulness; Alexander Smith was regarded as a poet in possession of a profound mode of expression but failed to direct it into religious contemplation. Only Sydney Dobell, a poet who had employed to great effect the current trend for spasmodic feeling in poetics, appeared to lay true claim to Gilfillan's "vacant laurel."2 That this feeling was inherently religious in tone was Gilfillan's view, but modern criticism remains unclear regarding the question of Dobell's religion and how, if at all, it inflects his poetry. This essay aims to clarify the issue first by unravelling the details of his faith, and second by using such detail to work through his religious lyrics. Religious or otherwise, all of his poetry is inflected by a fitful rhythmic pace that reflects his frantic and perhaps conflicted desire to both reach God and implement what he perceived to be the true Christian message in society. Like the "snow-muffled, dim and sweet" snow-drop, Dobell wrote in "The Snow-drop in the Snow" (1851), the "Poet" produces a music often misunderstood, being himself lost amidst "drifting snows" and blooming only in "loneliness" (ll. 45-47, 59).3 Yet as a figure "Full of faith," in Dobell's poem, the poet must tread, albeit precariously, a path between the winter of mortality and "Heaven / The dome of a great palace all of ice" (ll.1-2). Dutiful behavior on earth to his "fellow men" was certainly as significant to Dobell as his longing for paradise, a tension that sent a shudder through both his verse and his allegiance to a specific form of Christianity known simply as "the Church."
The first part of this discussion turns to "the Church," a religious community based on the Christian Church of the first century and headed [End Page 537] by Samuel Thompson. Thompson, Dobell's grandfather, carefully outlined the philosophy of his "Church" in Evidences of Revealed Religion (1814), which he published under the name Christophilus as a series of letters that are everywhere echoed in Dobell's own correspondence and verse. The influence of Evidences also extended to the Birmingham politician-preacher and social reformer George Dawson, who forwarded a radicalized version of Thompson's "Church" philosophy in numerous sermons. As one of Dobell's more intimate friends, Dawson seems to have touched the poet's concept of religion almost as much as Thompson, all three men intent on putting individuals back in touch with their feelings in order to create a national community founded on religious sensibility. Part two thus opens with Dobell's own prose explication of religion and "the Church" in Thoughts on Art, Philosophy and Religion (1876), a text usually cited to support Dobell's broad church position. "Broad Church," however, is a rather generalized and inadequate label to describe Dobell's position in light of Thompson's Evidences and Dawson's sermons. We might instead wish to regard the poet's religious identity as one characterized by its struggle to articulate the value of religious feeling over religious doctrine. While critics like W. David Shaw have attributed such feeling to a Hegelian model of spirit, it is also worth rendering this feeling as affective, spasmodically issuing from the believer entranced by God.4 Dobell remains Christian even as he rethinks this tradition through Thompson and Dawson, and the most recognizably religious of his lyrics reinforce his emotive belief, as part two will illustrate by reading "The Harps of Heaven" (c.1851), "To a Cathedral Tower" (1850...